Hot Springs, Arkansas has been home to many well-known people.
In the 1930s, the “Spa City” in Garland County was a popular hangout for infamous mobsters like Al Capone, Bugs Moran and Lucky Luciano. Actors Alan Ladd and Billy Bob Thornton were born in Hot Springs, and this Ouachita Mountains resort was the childhood home of President Bill Clinton.
If you’re a fisherman, however, Hot Springs is perhaps most famous as the home of Cotton Cordell, one of America’s most legendary and influential fishing-tackle designers.
Carl Richey Cordell Jr. was born in Benton, Arkansas, just a short drive from Hot Springs, on December 9, 1928, the only child of Carl and Alice Cordell. He was nicknamed “Cotton” because of his wispy, light-colored hair.
Until he was 18, Cotton lived in Benton where he attended high school and was active in sports. But in 1945 his life changed when the family moved to a fishing resort the senior Cordell had bought on Lake Catherine near Hot Springs.
In an article about Cordell titled Lifetime of Lures, Ken Scott said, “The marina’s office had a small window facing the lake where his father would stand and watch the fishing action. He would say, ‘Son, see that third boat out there on the lake? They aren’t catching enough fish. Go out and show them what they need to do.’ So, Cotton would row out to the boat and give the necessary tips on catching fish, which would usually enable the clients to catch more fish and become repeat customers.”
Cotton became a popular fishing guide on the lake, but he wasn’t making much money. It’s said he would buy surplus military survival kits just so he could get the single Upperman Bucktail jig packed inside each one.
But even these lures proved too costly on Cotton’s meager budget. “They caught fish like nobody’s business,” he said. “But if you lost it, then it got awful expensive to replace. I tell everyone that I started making lures because I couldn’t afford to buy them. That’s the truth.”
In the late 1940s, Cotton began creating his own lead-head jigs, which were poured in a handmade plastic mold in the kitchen and finished in the living room. The hooks were trotline hooks.
Unfortunately, deer had been hunted out in Arkansas back then, so Cotton had to find a substitute for the bucktail material. His long-haired English setter provided a solution. The young angler would snip off some of the hunting dog’s hair and tie it to the hook, completing the jig.
“Dog hair will catch just as many fish as the deer hair,” Cotton said. “But before it was over, I had the baldest English setter in the world.”
Those Banana Head Jigs, as they came to be called, were Cotton’s first lure creations. His second invention incorporated those same jigs with the addition of a large diaper pin and spinner. A diaper pin was molded into each jig’s lead head, then the sharp end was bent around to hold the spinner. Thus was born the Ouachita Spinner, one of the first spinnerbaits ever manufactured.
Cotton married his childhood sweetheart, Erma Lee Rothenberger, in 1949, and they later had two children, a son and a daughter. An enlistee in the United States Air Force, he was honorably discharged in 1953 after serving his country during the Korean War.
Just prior to leaving the service, in 1952, he established Cotton Cordell, Inc. The first lure he marketed was the Weedless Banana Head Jig, which sold two on a card in 1952 and 1953.
Conrad Wood of El Dorado, Arkansas – a well-known designer of such lures as the Sonic and Crippled Shad – taught Cotton to paint the jigs with one of the first epoxy paints. The paint worked so well, Cotton used it to demonstrate how nearly indestructible his lures were. When he was trying to make a sale to potential buyers, he would lay one of the jigs on a train-track bar and use a hammer to smash it as thin as a dime. The paint would still be on the jig head, and a sale would be assured.
Soon, orders for Cotton’s fish-catchers were pouring in from all over the world. He began manufacturing lures for other tackle companies like Pflueger, Creek Chub, Burke, Crème and Heddon. But just two years after the company was founded, Cotton started branding his own lures, many of which would become internationally famous.
He designed a wide variety of spinners, spoons and plugs himself and bought others, such as the famous Gay Blade and Red Fin lures designed by J. C. Boucher of Tyler, Texas.
His most profitable deal came about as a result of his friendship with Bobby Murray, the Hot Springs, Arkansas, angler who won two Bassmaster Classics, including the first one in 1972. Murray was working for Cordell in the spring of 1973 and called Cotton from a BASS tournament on Arkansas’ Beaver Lake to report that the hottest lure at the tournament was called a Big O. Cotton told Murray to get one and bring it to him.
Murray handed Cotton one of the lures the following Monday, saying nobody seemed to know much about it. It didn’t take long, however, to track down the Big O’s creator, a man named Fred Young from Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
High-stakes bass tournaments were in their infancy then, and when several pros with Tennessee connections began winning big bucks on Big Os, these hand-carved wonders became such a phenomenon that some bassing entrepreneurs introduced a rent-a-lure program, charging $25, plus an equal insurance deposit, for a one-day rental. It’s estimated that Fred hand-carved around 3,700 of the original Big Os, most of which sold for $10 to $15 a piece.
After locating Mr. Young, Cotton Cordell arranged a meeting at the Cordell plant in Hot Springs. From that meeting came an agreement between the two men that allowed Cotton to make and market a plastic version of the Big O. It was introduced to anglers in Cordell’s 1973-74 catalog, and within 13 months, more than 1.3 million had been sold.
“The Original Big O started a lure revolution,” said Bobby Murray. “It started the big plug phenomenon. Lures that featured a big, fat wobble. Everybody at one time has tried to make a plug like that.”
Cotton continued designing many lures himself. Bobby Dennis, sales manager with Luck-E-Strike lures, began working for Cordell when he was a college student in the early 1970s. He said, “Cotton was first and foremost a fisherman.” But he noted, “I can’t picture Cotton without a piece of wood in one hand and a pocket knife in the other. He was always working on a new lure body and experimenting with designs.”
In his book The Fish That Changed America, writer Steve Price, in a chapter fully devoted to Cotton Cordell, said, “He may have designed and created more lures than anyone else in history. They easily number in the hundreds and perhaps thousands.”
Among the well-known lures Cordell created or introduced to the fishing public, besides those already mentioned, were the Hot Spot, Boy Howdy, Crazy Shad, Sonic, Twin Spin, Near Nuthin, Vibra King, Vibra Queen, Super Shad, Swimming Shad, Crawdad, Crab, Huncho, Loudmouth, Mr. Whiskers and a wide variety of jigs.
Cordell also produced a successful line of fiberglass fishing boats called Going Jessie. He built rods, made the first power reel handle and produced high-speed gears for Abu Garcia reels.
On top of his other accomplishments, Cotton Cordell touched the lives of many people in the fishing tackle industry and helped a lot of people get started in their early years. TV personality Bill Dance was hired in 1974 to promote Cordell lures. Cotton bought him his first TV camera and produced his first show.
Cordell also helped Jerry McKinnis film some of his first TV shows. And he helped Gary Loomis, founder of G. Loomis rod company, get started in business around 1982 with rod equipment, blanks and start-up capital.
In 1980, Cotton sold his company to EBSCO, which now owns PRADCO Outdoor Brands in Fort Smith, Arkansas, the largest fishing-lure manufacturing company in the world. Just before the sale, Cordell was producing 22,000 lures each day and employed more than 200 people in Hot Springs and overseas. From 1968 to 1980, Cordell Bait Company was the world’s largest lure maker.
Cotton’s lifetime work was recognized in 1988 when he was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame. In 1997, he was inducted into the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame, followed in 2002 by induction into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame. He passed away peacefully surrounded by family and loved ones on January 6, 2015, at the age of 86.